We’ve Come A Long Way, Maybe, Sort Of

In 2012, only twelve of the top sixty-seven films had female leads (some of which shared lead status with their male co-star). This kind of sex disparity is not uncommon in film, and it is even harder to find strong female leads. Usually, women are portrayed as sex objects (e.g., Skyfall, Flight), victims (e.g., Cabin in the Woods), or they are just virtually non-existent/unimportant/one-dimensional (e.g., The Hobbit, Contraband). However, there have been a few strong women throughout the decades like Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, Juno MacGuff from Juno and Hanna from Hanna, but for the most part, there are never as many strong female characters as there are men. Of the few strong female leads that are portrayed, some, while trying to break gendered norms, still adhere to patriarchal restraints as can be witnessed through their very complicated dance with hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. These strong female leads are pop culture’s current equivalent of Virginia Slims’ “We’ve come a long way, baby” campaign. They outwardly promote the independence and strength of women while simultaneously advocating for women’s continued adherence to patriarchal ideals. The best 21st century example of this is Katniss from the 2012 film, The Hunger Games.

Katniss is a sixteen year old who is a very skilled archer, the sole provider for her family and is not interested in physical appearances or romantic relationships. She lives in Panem, a futuristic North America, where an event called the Hunger Games takes place every year. In this event, twenty-four children are chosen as Tributes and are forced to kill each other until there is only one Victor. In the most recent Hunger Games, Katniss’s little sister Prim is drawn to participate as a Tribute, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss eventually goes on to win the Hunger Games alongside her fellow district nominee and love-interest, Peeta. Throughout the movie, she is often portrayed as being more physically threatening and competent than Peeta (she protects him for most of the Games), as being emotionally detached and manipulative (tricks Peeta into believing she reciprocates his romantic feelings in order to save him), and a rebel (forces the Games to name both her and Peeta as Victors). Because of all of these attributes and actions, she is often lauded by film critics as being an admirable heroine who “…rescues herself with resourcefulness, guts and true aim…,” and does not need the aid of men. However, there are several conflicting messages being told through the character of Katniss. First, viewers are told that to be a successful and respected woman, one has to embody hegemonically masculine values; second, that women embody masculine traits only under non-normative circumstances; and thirdly, that women need to conform to hetero-normative feminine ideals.

In the movie, especially in the beginning, Katniss is portrayed as having hegemonically masculine attributes. She is independent, unafraid and skilled, and is a heroine that is propelled by principle and not by the nearest cute boy. However, it is suggested that she has become this way due to her lack of a father, emotionally paralyzed mother and the harsh conditions she lives in rather than any innate ability of her own. This thus implicates that her behavior is non-normative and that women are not ordinarily able to be strong. Women and femininity are further undermined by Katniss’s critical hegemonic beliefs of her mother. For example, Katniss views her mother as being weak, frail and ineffective due to her depression (an illness commonly associated with women) and is very critical of her mothering skills. Katniss shows absolutely no positive emotions such as understanding or empathy towards her mother, and even leaves her male friend Gale in charge of her mom and sister due to their perceived feminine uselessness. Ironically, it is these same feminine ideals that Katniss is so critical of that are later repeatedly emphasized in Katniss. However, her femininity is not emphasized in order to promote the good qualities of femininity, but rather, it is used as a means to restrict and undermine her authority. This is illustrated when her appearance is changed, and Peeta attempts to save her.

Katniss is not one to focus on her looks and does not care about fashion. Nevertheless, once she becomes a Tribute she is repeatedly told that her value is in her looks and how she is desired, not in who she is. Various people keep trying to change her appearance, and while she initially resists, she eventually gives in. She recognizes that in order to gain support in the Games, she needs to conform to society’s feminine ideals of beauty while simultaneously remaining emotionless so as not to appear too feminine (i.e., weak) . Katniss is then made to appear even more attractive and desirable by Peeta’s public love confession. This confession is meant to make Katniss seem more relatable by casting her within society’s idea of a normative female – pretty, White, heterosexual and in love (strikingly like American ideals). Of course, Peeta receives no such similar benefit of instant likeability. Only Katniss’s image is improved by his confession which suggests that women are expected to be warm and that they can only exude this warmth when involved in a heterosexual romance. Additionally, Peeta’s confession undermines Katniss’s independence and further emphasizes her femininity. Peeta never informed Katniss of his plan to improve her image and by not informing her, he reinforces the age-old adage that women need to be rescued. This message is repeatedly conveyed through Peeta’s consistently deceptive rescues. For instance, when they were children, Peeta tricked Katniss into taking a loaf of bread so that she would not starve; he pulled his love confession stunt on live television; and during the Games, he pretended to double-cross her by joining the Careers (a group of Tributes) in order to protect her from said Tributes. Critics may claim that she is a new kind of female warrior, but really, she is not so different from some of the less flatteringly portrayed women in film.

It is true that Katniss is a fantastic archer, provides for her mother and sister and does not care about her physical appearance. However, it seems that even a strong female role model cannot escape from the tyranny of patriarchal ideals. Through Katniss, female viewers are still being told that they can only be respected when embodying traditional masculine beliefs, that they can only embody these beliefs because of non-normative circumstances, and that they still have to adhere to certain feminine ideals no matter how independent and competent they are. These messages are not immediately noticeable, and it is much easier to accept only the basic overt message that women can kick ass than to acknowledge these other covert messages. In fact, most critics never even notice how patriarchic ideals undermine Katniss’s power. Usually, they just categorize Katniss and The Hunger Games as being revolutionary, “stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation,” and as “…showcase[ing] the allure of the story’s remarkable, kick-ass 16-year-old heroine…”. Patriarchal beliefs that hegemonic masculinity is the superior gender enactment, and that women need to be pretty and protected, after all, are so ingrained within American society that it is not very surprising that no one notices or questions these beliefs. There is a great societal sense of ambivalence in reference to gender roles. On one hand society says, yes, the sexes are equal, a woman can be just as strong as a male and do what she wants, and then on the other hand, society will say, yes a woman can be strong, but she cannot be that strong. She must still continue to adhere to feminine stereotypes. To end gendered portrayals, directors, script writers and actors need to examine their own biases if they wish to create strong female role models uninfluenced by implicit patriarchal beliefs. Otherwise, all they are doing is presenting a new and more subtle version of the patronizing and oppressive “we’ve come a long way” campaign.